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Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto - Vrioon

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Artist: Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto

Album: Vrioon

Label: Raster-Noton

Review date: Jan. 15, 2004

Ryuichi Sakamoto's restless 25-year career has seen sorties onto the soil of Cage, Devo, Kraftwerk, Eno, Varese, Debussy. Never a dull or definitive moment. His Yellow Magic Orchestra were, for a few songs at least, one of the most brilliant electronic pop groups of the late-’70s, and a huge influence on early techno. The Yes-like pomp of the live album After Service may not have been YMO's finest hour, but the crowds heard gleefully cheering thereupon shared their enthusiasm with contemporaries like Gary Numan and, a little later, Cybotron. In recent years, Sakamoto's prepared piano superseded pop inclinations, for the most part to continued acclaim. Today he supplies instrumental music for films or for dreaming to; the line on albums like 1999's BTTB (Sony Classical) is that they're serene and pretty, but much less adventurous than those of 15 or 20 years ago.

alva noto, or just noto, is Carsten Nicolai, the German producer whose noton.archiv fuer ton und nichtton (English: "the noton archive of tones and non-tones") fused with Frank Bretschneider's Raster imprint in 1999 to form Raster-Noton. Part conventional record label, part launching pad for more involved ventures (including the 12-CD series 20 to 2000 and three books of theory by Nicolai), Raster-Noton has in its brief existence amassed a fantastic catalogue of sound experiments by Thomas Brinkmann, Kim Cascone, noto, and COH, as well as the venerable tape-loop wizard William Basinski.

Raster-Noton's 50th release is Vrioon, a collaboration that blends Sakamoto's airy piano with alva noto's nearly silent hums and whirs. In tandem they recall the pre-punch line segment of "let's see who can hit the softest."

alva noto's pencil-thin tones – purist sounds with not an ounce of fat on them – stood alone on Transform (Mille Plateaux, 2001). These sounds, among the most fundamental imaginable, are why that record was intrepid – lonely amplified currents played solitary on the stereo, fending for themselves. Ditto with the Endless Loop (e, f, g, h) disc, on which an extra hole is drilled off-center on the vinyl, so that each fraction of sound can be heard either conventionally or warped. SND are My Bloody Valentine in comparison.

Vrioon places the same sort of minimalism in a very different context. You almost had to tune out Transform to enjoy it, it so filled with absence, but with Sakamoto's piano underlying the circuitry, Vrioon could conceivably be said to have a presence. The romantic Sakamoto dwells heavily on his feelings, soaking the music in melodrama wherever possible, and rarely alters the predominant tone of mumpish solemnity. Thus noto's electronics take on a new purpose, adding enterprise to otherwise inward-looking compositions. Symbiosis in action.

The album has six tracks, with the shortest around five minutes and the longest 13. "uoon I" is the definitive piece, organized around Sakamoto's sparsely laid out melody and including noto's high-pitched S-O-S signals. A rhythmic murmur, like a washing machine in the other room, is the only element that fills the entire space of the song. Periodically the S-O-S becomes frantic for a few seconds, and the murmur echoes, but the result is simply another layer rather than an increase in total intensity.

"uoon I" floats seamlessly into "uoon 2," which extracts two piano notes from the original melody and repeats them over and over along with the murmur. Melody returns on "duoon," and "noon." The latter track has a strange structure: the piano stops in the middle of the song, leaving the electronics alone. Though it would have been hard to pick out back when the piano was playing, the rhythm by now has entered a definite groove. Played on fast-forward, this becomes even more obvious.

Go back and play the whole track that way, and you hear that the rhythm was in a sense tight all along – just too extended in space to be perceptible as such. That imperceptibility may be the point of Vrioon, an album on which shapes take so long to come together that a listener can't possibly process their contours in real time. And it's really pretty besides.

By Ben Tausig

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